Soak up the simplicity of village life, challenge yourself to steep hikes, or find serenity in remoteness—there are many ways to be actively passive in Himachal Pradesh’s Barot. Text & photographs by Mukul and Shilpa Gupta
Paul Simon seems ridiculously out of place in an isolated Himalayan village. Yet, the haunting chords and profound lyrics of his Andes-inspired song El Condor Pasa, which goes, “I’d rather be a forest than a street…”, keeps replaying in my head. I picture myself à la Cheryl Strayed—a hiking cane in hand and a rucksack on my back, like in the movie Wild undertaking the tough Pacific Crest Trail. Unlike Strayed, however, I am hiking in the protective company of my husband, and we are doing a far easier day-long trek through thickets and meadows, along trickling streams and roaring waterfalls, and up undulating hills dotted with sprightly rhododendrons.
Everywhere we look, glaciers and snow-capped peaks of the Dhauladhars gaze back. Tiny hamlets that seem like the re-imaginings of a fairy-tale writer peer from cliffsides. Delicate terraced farms of mustard punctuate the sturdy landscape. A river rambles way below. Like apparitions, humans appear occasionally. Men bearing the trademark Himachali cap and women wearing the traditional fulli and balu (gold pins on both nostrils) greet us with smiles that widen into grins. “Which one is your village?” we ask, and they jauntily point it out. “Aao, chai peene (Come, have tea with us),” absolute strangers invite.
Never before have I been in a place so tantalising yet innocent, so ethereal yet humbling. It’s instant love with Barot, a sleepy Himachal town where people live as nature intended— unpretentiously. To understand the extent of its rudimentary character, you must know this: it acquired a basic road only four decades ago. For years, it was but a blip on a mule trail that connected the flanking valleys of Kullu and Kangra. Even now, families here live off the earth, induced by needs, not wants. But that’s only half the story. It did contemplate advancement, much before most other Indian towns had caught the whiff of technology. A century ago, Barot—once a part of the Mandi kingdom—shed obscurity by adopting a haulage trolley system. Commissioned by the British for a hydel project, it was used to transport material from the Shanan Power House, in nearby Jogindernagar, to construct a reservoir. When Barot got a road-link in the 1970s, the trolley system was repurposed as a means of transport, but now it has been forsaken.
Barot’s other brush with development also came via tracks —this one in the form of a train. Though the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) has hogged all the limelight, this region too has a narrow-gauge train—the Kangra Valley Railway, which runs from Jogindernagar in Himachal Pradesh to Pathankot in Punjab. Lumbering through Barot, it accords spectacular views of mountains and valleys to passengers and entices those within earshot with its clickety-clack. Unlike DHR, it has continued to remain a bonafide mode of travel for the locals without taking on the reductionist role of a touristy must-do.
Even though the haulage trolley system is now defunct, the reservoir of Shanan Power House remains the pivot around which Barot revolves. Closeby, a cluster of shops selling everyday utility items make up the village market. Many of the houses in the vicinity have been converted into homestays—an indication of the growing ‘outside’ influence. You can get a look-see at the historic 10.62-kilometre-long, narrow-gauge relic of the haulage system and, if lucky, even procure a permit from the Punjab State Electricity Board, the current owners of the system, to take a short ride. Instead of testing our luck, we choose to hike along the tracks. Some parts of the trek are steep, such as that along a hill ominously christened Khooni Ghati or Death Valley. When we begin tiring, we rest on boulders whittled by centuries of erosion, and outcomes our packed lunch from the backpack. We polish off the aloo paratha rolls in hushed silence, mindful not to disrupt the symphony of singing birds. A cloudless sky keeps a silent watch over ancient trees of oak and deodar, whose long limbs cast soft shadows over undulating fields. Flowers are in bloom, we’re inhaling crisp air, and our world—like our lungs—is happy.
Those who have heard of Barot recognise it as the ideal angling destination, since the clear blue waters of the River Uhl, along which the town is nestled, abound with trout. We’re told that some of its finest fishing spots are located at Luhandi, Tikkar, and Balh. Though not inclined to try angling, we manage to indulge in another kind of fishy business. For over 60 years, the government-owned Barot Trout Farm, with hatcheries and storage tanks, has been breeding trouts. In its close proximity is the HP PWD Rest House. Set amid perfectly manicured lawns, it is a secluded log cottage dwarfed by tall coniferous trees. Not surprisingly, it has turned into Barot’s most recognisable unofficial emblem. The town also marks the entrance to the Nargu Wildlife Sanctuary.
Several trekking trails, including those going up to Bada Bhangal and Kullu, pass through Barot. As city-dwellers facing the predictable constraints of time, we can only undertake short excursions during our time here, and more importantly, we’re greedy to absorb the full spectrum of simple thrills the area has to offer. Cautiously making our way through zig-zagging faint trails, we visit tiny hamlets perched atop hills, with charming names like Boching, Kao, Shyamal, Tarwan, and Kahog. Made of log or mud-plastered rock with sloping slate roofs, the houses seem to belong to another era, their welcoming residents even more so. The population of each scattered hamlet tops 200, with several generations living together.
Chatting with the friendly locals, we learn that agriculture remains the mainstay, even when the young ones are swiftly moving to big cities in pursuit of higher education. Though the women are dressed traditionally, all flaunting ghungroomaal, a silver neckpiece typical of the area, they are confident multitaskers, tending to the farms, the fields, the cattle, and the family. Smiling readily and chatting incessantly, they let us in on a secret: the Lapas waterfall near Shyamal. “You’ve come so far, don’t return without seeing it,” they urge. Our
interest piqued, we’re determined not to.
The next morning, we cross a makeshift wooden bridge, wade through a stream of icy cold water, and take off for the seven-kilometre-long trek. The ascent is not difficult, but we linger at each spot that gives us an exigent view of the landscape—wild mountain flowers glistening under the benevolent mid-morning sun, symbiotic plants clinging to trees, rocks with puddles of melting snow, and scampering bucklings. After a couple of hours, we begin to hear it in the distance. Following our auditory GPS, we stumble upon it a half-hour later. Lapas is not what you’d call magnificent, but it’s the location that is the clincher! Tucked away from the world, closer to heaven. Since it is too cold to bathe in its cold waters, we’re happy to soak up its spray.
Almost six hours after we had begun, we return to ground level and head straight for a rustic eatery. Hema Devi’s Tea Stall is lined up with glass jars of lozenges, laddoos, and fan —a flaky biscuit that the locals love to dunk in their tea. We order lunch and wait ravenously, sipping ginger tea and relishing the melting fans in our mouth. In under 30 minutes, Hema presents a simple lunch of dal, rice, a gravy of kala chana and tangy brah ki chatni (rhododendron chutney). As we lick our fingers clean, I realise that real happiness comes from a ready smile, an open heart, and a simple life in the lap of nature. I could live like this, I tell myself. I could live in Barot forever—I, too, could learn to be simple and happy. But, just then, Paul Simon returns with a jolt: “A man gets tied up to the ground/ He gives the world its saddest sound”.
Sadly, I must return for now, but Barot has made El Condor Pasa my forever song.
Barot lies in the Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh. Gaggal (90 km) and Bhuntar (125 km) are the nearest airports. Delhi is 500 km away by road.
March to June.
Adventure seekers and nature lovers.
Barot is known for outdoor activities like trekking, hiking, angling, and camping. However, it is mandatory to get a license from the Trout Farm Office, Barot for angling; INR 100/USD1.4 for a day.